The Digital Journalist
Multi-Tasking, Mediocre-Tasking

Doing it all to no good end
August 2007

by Frank Van Riper

I joined the New York Daily News, on June 21, 1967, one week after I graduated college. Beside the fact that I was given this golden chance to write for what then was the largest newspaper in America, I also realized that I actually was going to be paid--$125 a week—to do what I loved most: be a reporter.

But in fact, during the previous four years at City College of New York, where in my junior year I edited The Campus, CCNY's oldest newspaper (while also holding down nightside jobs on the New York Post and the Herald Tribune), I had done lots more than reporting. I not only wrote headlines for The Campus, I occasionally set them. I did page layouts and I wrote editorials. Of course I wrote stories. And, as you might guess, I also took pictures. Lots of pictures.

No one called it multi-tasking back then, but that's what it was. And frankly, I do not remember missing it when I joined The News, where a small army of men and women put out the equivalent of a small novel every day, with each person doing his or her assigned task very, very well.

Still, even on the Daily News, some form of multi-tasking occurred—with my writing anyway—as I ventured forth from the little office that housed us editorial trainees and I introduced myself to as many editors as I could, suggesting story ideas and seeing if there was anything that needed doing. I wrote for the daily paper; I wrote for the Manhattan-Bronx section; I wrote for the Sunday Magazine. You name it; I probably wrote for it.

Back in the trainees' office, whenever any of us had a story printed, we would cut it out and proudly tack it to the cork-board walls under our name. By late fall, most of my colleagues each had about a dozen pieces on the walls. I had what looked like a bed sheet.

All this hustle did not go unnoticed. Within five months I was sent to the Daily News' Washington bureau for a three-month tryout that lasted 20 years.

My 20-plus years on the New York Daily News, that ended Nov. 1, 1987 when I stepped down as Washington Bureau News Editor, seem like ancient history, not least because of the sea change that has hit journalism in the digital age. And while the technology to move words and pictures from point A to point B has never been faster, I fear that most, if not all, of the other changes that have affected daily journalism--print, photo and online--have not been beneficial. Some, in fact, have been poisonous.

A little history to make a point:

I happened to hit Washington in late 1967, or right before a presidential campaign year. I had no idea then, nor had anyone else, how tumultuous, tragic and divisive that campaign year would be. But what a way to start one's career as a political writer. After about six months learning my way around, I was given the chance to cover then-Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey as he crisscrossed the country on a campaign swing preceding the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that would nominate him for president. It was a week-long trip that had everything: "cheers, jeers, pickets, celebrities, arm-twisting, fence-mending, kisses and noise."

I used that construction in a full-page op-end piece I did on my return but, proud as I was of the article, I was prouder of the fact that a photograph of Humphrey that I had made on the campaign plane accompanied it (along with the tiny legend "News photo by Frank Van '.")

It was common for me back then to tote a Nikon F loaded with Tri-X along with my Olivetti portable typewriter. (Remember typewriters?) And it seemed foolish not to make a shot of Humphrey in the crowded campaign plane—and to offer it to my editors.

I walked into the office the day the piece ran expecting plaudits. Instead I was called on the carpet.

"Don't ever do that again," said my bureau chief, Jerry Greene, an ex-Marine Lt. Colonel.

The reason? Daily News photographers in New York, seeing that a reporter, of all people, had taken a picture for the paper, had threatened to file a union grievance over the transgression. (Remember unions?)

With one notable exception, I never made a photograph for the Daily News again. The one exception was when I interviewed a convicted murderer in a maximum-security prison hospital in California, where it was tough enough just to get me inside the walls. The photo desk said--grudgingly one assumes--that I could bring my camera.

All this background is relevant, I think, in light of the current weakness in the journalism job market, especially for photographers.

The January '07 Photo District News offered up this glum assessment in a headline: "Falling circulation and staff cuts create a bleak outlook for newspaper photography. As readers migrate online, will jobs follow?" [FYI, my late colleague and friend Lars-Erik Nelson once declared that "the answer to any headline with a question mark is 'No'."]

In the PDN article, Tony Overman, president of the National Press Photographers Association, conceded that the number of newspaper photographer jobs is decreasing, but maintained that, because of the Internet, "opportunities for photographers are actually expanding." He insisted that jobs will migrate from print to online newspapers as publishers figure ways to make their online versions profitable—something that precious few have been able to do since virtually all newspapers long ago decided to make their Internet versions free to readers as a kind of loss leader. Among major American dailies, only the Wall Street Journal cannily decided at the start to make all of its online content subscriber-only and has profited nicely for it. [Years later The New York Times instituted "TimesSelect" for its online edition in which its premier columnists and features were offered, in effect, pay-per-view.]

On the other hand, sheets like the Washington Post, New York Daily News and others, with print circulation dropping as readers flock to the freebie Internet versions, have watched their print ad holes diminish as retailers search for more effective ways to reach customers. To the papers' corporate bean counters, who care only for the bottom line, this puts intolerable pressure on the Web divisions to be as profitable as possible to try to make up for the loss in print ad revenue. And how do free newspaper Web sites do that, you ask? By cutting staff and expenses—a scenario that, for the foreseeable future anyway, does not seem to bear out Overman's rosy prediction of more photo jobs becoming available on conventional newspaper Web sites.

Overman did offer a suggestion to wannabe photojournalists: multi-task.

"[P]hotojournalists need to prepare themselves by learning new skills, particularly audio, video and multimedia editing skills," to increase their attraction to potential employers, the PDN piece quoted Overman as saying.

Certainly that is good advice: only a fool would not hone or expand his or her skills in a dynamic and changing job market. The danger, though, is what happens when – in an increasingly bottom-line-hungry climate in which deadlines are constant – news organizations (or, more correctly, the suits upstairs who call the tune) feel they can pile various jobs onto a staffer who is in no position to complain, and still expect to get professional quality results in both words and images.

Not that this is new. Small-town dailies routinely would give their reporters a camera and tell them to come back with a pic of the city council president or homecoming queen to accompany the reporter's story.

In most cases this did no great harm. But now, even major news organizations, especially in war zones or other dangerous places, are equipping their ostensible print reporters with digital cameras capable of shooting streaming video and expecting them to supply images and video for the Web while also covering a breaking news story objectively and in depth.

This not only is foolish; it is unprofessional. It is madness.

And far too often all it provides is piss-poor pictures by non-photographers.

But, you could say, aren't you a photographer who is a writer; a writer who is a photographer? And weren't you pleased when one of your photos accompanied the objective, in-depth, story you wrote about Hubert Humphrey?

Sure I was, and in later years I photographed the books I wrote and wrote the books I photographed.

But in all of these cases, I was not working on deadline. I was not doing two jobs in the time it would take to barely do one. The maddening thing about journalism today is that there ARE no deadlines or, more correctly, there are deadlines every minute, owing to the tyranny of the Internet and its endlessly open maw for words and pictures. Print reporters and photographers are not immune: often they must supply words and pictures for their Web site versions throughout the day—don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

In fact, as many press critics already have noted, the poisonous combination of deadline-every-minute journalism (the Web, 24-hour cable news, etc.) and near-continuous availability of images from amateurs, cell phones and god knows where, has resulted in a conspicuous dumbing down of journalism content, especially of images. Never mind the fact that, with the explosion of imagery available from un-vetted sources online, it only is a matter of time before a major news organization is guilty of rushing into print or online with a totally bogus picture supplied by someone with a hidden agenda or, even worse, by some schmuck of a photo-hacker who thinks it would be way cool to mess with the "establishment media."

This is the time, I would suggest, for news organizations to spend more, not less, on content, which translates into hiring more professionals to do specific jobs, and not to downsize them into a harried collection of jacks and jills of all trades. This is the time for news organizations to charge for their online content.

I used to believe (alright, hope) that the print newspaper would always be there. After all, it's what nurtured me throughout most of my journalism career.

Now I am not so sure. But I certainly believe, too, that if online journalism is to be the wave of the future, it cannot be done in the great tradition of the past if it is done on the cheap.

[Copyright Frank Van '. All Rights Reserved.]

© Frank Van Riper

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer, journalist, author and photography columnist. He served for 20 years in the New York Daily News' Washington bureau as White House correspondent, national political correspondent and Washington bureau news editor, and was a 1979 Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Among other books, he is the author of the biography "Glenn: The Astronaut Who Would Be President," as well as the photography books "Faces of the Eastern Shore" and "Down East Maine/A World Apart." His book "Talking Photography" is a collection of his Washington Post and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his Web site:

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